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Election Riots of 1861

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By 1860, after five years, the Liberal government was showing signs of weakness.


Bannerman dismissed Kent and the other members of the Executive Council when Kent lost his temper in the Assembly.


Following an election on May 2, Conservatives won 14 seats while the Liberals won 12.

The Election Riots of 1861

As many merchants and Protestants had feared during the debate on responsible government, in 1855 the Liberal party gained a majority of seats and the Roman Catholic Phillip F. Little was appointed Newfoundland's first premier. Though some Roman Catholics allied themselves with the Conservatives rather than the Liberal party over which the bishop had great influence, the Catholic church hierarchy effectively mobilised its adherents during election time, to not only vote Liberal, but also to intimidate voters who might have supported the other candidates. Added to this, many merchants and wealthy citizens did not stand for election, since they saw it as futile to sit as a minority in the Assembly and potentially dangerous to themselves and their property to run for election.

By 1860, however, the Liberal government was showing signs of weakness. There were serious tensions between John Kent, who became premier in 1858, and Bishop Mullock, and between native-born and Irish-born Catholics. Also, many Methodists, who had hitherto supported the Liberals, were becoming disillusioned with the leadership. Kent also faced a governor, Sir Alexander Bannerman, who was highly critical of the government.

The crisis which brought down the Liberals broke early in 1861, over the government's plan effectively to lower the salaries paid to government officials (including judges), many of whom were Protestants. The Supreme Court judges objected, and hired the leader of the Conservative party, Hugh Hoyles, to argue their case. Already under great strain, Kent lost his temper in the Assembly and accused the governor, the Opposition and the judges of conspiring against his government. Bannerman responded by dismissing Kent and the other members of the Executive Council, and installing Hoyles as premier. This action was certainly partisan, and probably illegal.

Sir Alexander Bannerman, 1857
Bannerman was responsible for dismissing Kent and installing Hoyles as premier.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA27-43A), St. John's, Newfoundland.
Sir Alexander Bannerman

Since the Liberals still had a majority, Hoyles and the Conservatives soon lost a non-confidence motion. Bannerman then dissolved the House of Assembly and scheduled a general election for 2 May. A Liberal victory would mean Bannerman's disgrace; a Conservative victory his vindication. In an attempt to ensure the former, Mullock patched up his differences with Kent, but the Catholic community remained divided. The Anglican Bishop Feild made no secret of his support for Hoyles.

The election proceeded as many others had in the past. Either Conservatives or Liberals won easily in districts with clear Protestant and Catholic majorities. The Conservatives won the swing district of Burin by acclamation. The outcome hinged upon the districts in Conception Bay, and since the stakes were high - candidates and their supporters faced violence and intimidation. In Harbour Grace the governor used the threat of violence as an excuse to not open the polls. Since the Tory candidates there had already withdrawn, the effect was to prevent the election of the two Liberal candidates.

No Conservatives stood for election in Harbour Main, but the divisions within the Catholic community between different towns, natives and immigrants, and Irish people from different counties, caused trouble. Four Roman Catholic candidates ran for two seats under the Liberal banner. Two had the backing of the Bishop of Harbour Grace, George Hogsett and Charles Furey; the other two, Patrick Nowlan and Thomas Byrne, had the support of some of the local priests. Confusion and violence - leading to one death - erupted as each side tried to prevent the other from voting. Eventually the returning officer, who feared for his life, signed certificates retaining all four candidates.

The governor refused to allow any of these men to take their seats in the Assembly until a committee of the House determined who were the rightful members. With the election in Harbour Grace cancelled and the Harbour Main returns declared invalid, the overall result was 14 Conservatives and 12 Liberals.

The Liberals believed they should have had 16 seats, had the governor allowed the Conception Bay elections to proceed. This convinced the Liberals that there had been a conspiracy to wrest power from them. When the legislature met, Bishop Mullock and the Liberals encouraged, with inflammatory rhetoric, public protest in the streets outside the Colonial Building. Hogsett and Furey attempted to take their seats but were expelled, touching off an outburst from the crowd that quieted down only after the troops from the garrison showed their weapons.

Bishop John Thomas Mullock Bishop John Thomas Mullock (1807-1869), n.d.
Mullock encouraged public protest in the streets outside the Colonial Building.
From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NF), Centenary Volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 154.
Larger Version (40 kb)

Later that day, members of the Assembly had to be escorted out of the Colonial Building by troops, an act which prompted more violence. The crowd rioted, destroying property, especially that owned by Nowlan's relatives in St. John's. A magistrate read the riot act, former Premier Little and several priests exhorted the crowd to disburse, without result. Threat and persuasion achieved nothing, and the standoff on Water Street continued until that evening when someone in the crowd allegedly fired upon the troops. The troops then opened fire, killing three people and wounding 20, including a priest.

Bishop Mullock rang the bells of the cathedral to summon the crowd, which paraded up the hill. Mullock appealed for an end to the violence. The crowd dispersed without further incident. Many Protestants criticised Mullock for not intervening earlier, since he clearly had the influence to stop the violence.

Following the riot in St. John's, Mullock and the governor met and reached a compromise. The bishop promised to use his influence to discourage further violence, and the governor promised to restrain the troops at his disposal.

The vacant seats at Harbour Grace were filled in a fall by-election which was a testing ground for Hoyles' ability to construct an administration, and Mullock's willingness and ability to prevent violence. Hoyles thought that if violence and intimidation could be prevented, he would win the district and be able to convince some moderate Roman Catholics to join his government. The presence of troops in the district prevented further violence or intimidation in Harbour Grace, and two Conservatives were indeed elected.

Sporadic violence continued in Harbour Main, but Nowlan and Byrne were allowed by a committee of the Assembly, to take their seats. Hoyles had his majority and brought to an end the period of Liberal domination.

Sir Hugh Hoyles (1814-1888), n.d.
The period of Liberal domination ended when Hoyles was elected Prime Minister in 1861.
Photo by the Stereoscopic Company. From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records (London: Macmillan, 1895) 488.
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Sir Hugh Hoyles

The results of this crisis were of lasting importance. The community as a whole was shocked by the violence which had occurred, and in subsequent years such incidents became extremely rare. Clerical involvement in politics seems to have become less overt, and certainly less sensational. Of greatest significance, over the next decade a denominational compromise emerged in public life. It became the unwritten rule that governments, and therefore political parties, should include members of all the churches. In addition, legislature and the civil service came to reflect the denominational composition of the population, and the school system was effectively turned over to the major churches. With the rules laid down, public and political life could move on to issues that concerned all Newfoundlanders, no matter what their religious affiliation.

©2001, Jeff A. Webb

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